The Mirror & The Light is the story of Thomas Cromwell and King Henry from May 20, 1536 through July 28, 1540. The novel, which begins with a beheading and ends with a beheading, is the final novel in Mantel’s trilogy chronicling Thomas Cromwell’s rise and fall. Since it is a historical novel, with some liberties and fictional characters thrown in, I am going to assume you do not need to be warned about spoiler alerts!
The novel starts with the beheading of Anne Boleyn, Henry’s second wife. Anne is beheaded for what can best be described as adulterous behavior. There is a rather chilling scene where Anne, at the scaffold, is still hopeful of Henry’s forgiveness. “He remembers her faltering progress to the scaffold; her glance, as the Frenchman says, was directed over her shoulder…Still she did not let hope weaken her….He had seen her start to tremble…she did not see the sword, not even its shadow, and the blade went through her neck with a sigh, easier than scissors through silk.”
But of course, Anne’s execution is just one more in a long line of beheadings and other killings, and life goes on for Thomas Cromwell. “Once the queen’s head is severed, he walks away. A sharp pang of appetite reminds him that it is time for a second breakfast, or perhaps an early dinner.” Thomas Cromwell is 50 years old at this point in time.
At the time of Anne’s execution, Henry has already selected a new bride. He has also executed all of the men who were believed to be “involved” with Anne. “The king did not choose to display the heads of Anne’s lovers on London Bridge; in case he decides to ride through with his new wife, he wants to keep the capital tidy.” Henry marries Jane Seymour shortly after Anne’s execution.
Henry has a bastard son, Henry Fitzroy, Duke of Richmond, a daughter Mary, from his first wife Katherine, and a daughter Elizabeth, from Anne. He is obsessed with having a son within the confines of marriage to carry on his legacy. A great deal of the book deals with his concerns, and his councilor’s machinations, regarding his successor.
Religion is a serious issue and anyone whose faith is connected to Rome, or alternately who is a Lutheran, is considered a heretic, a traitor and subject to execution– and not a kind and easy execution like Anne’s. There is a lot of burning and dismembering in the novel. A lot of people are sent to the “Tower”. The level of cruelty and disregard for human life portrayed in the novel is stunning.
Henry’s daughter Mary is on the verge of execution for her refusal to recognize England’s state religion and her father as head of the Church. Cromwell has a soft spot for Mary, who is 20 years old when the novel begins. He forces her to recognize her father as head of the Church, and disavow Rome. She is then able to return to England. Cromwell is constantly helping Mary and giving her gifts, rejecting marriage possibilities on her behalf. These behaviors are viewed as his desire to marry her and accede to the throne, causing him no end of trouble toward the end of the book.
Henry is not exactly virile and his lack of sexual prowess is a constant theme in the novel, as is his vanity. However, Jane does manage to become pregnant and give him a son, Edward. Jane dies shortly after Edward’s birth. Henry becomes obsessed with finding his next wife. In many cases, marriages are arranged to ingratiate countries and to add wealth. Women generally have little say in the arrangement. “…women are to be named and renamed, it is their nature, and they have no country of their own; they go where their husbands take them, where their fathers and brothers send them.”
Henry confides almost everything in Cromwell and Cromwell makes a lot of decisions and engages in a lot of business on Henry’s behalf. This creates a great deal of envy from Henry’s other advisors, particularly since Cromwell does not come from a grand family line, and is just a “common man.” Further complicating Cromwell’s life is the fact that Henry is perpetually suspicious of anyone he is close to. “He saw Henry’s need and he filled it, but you never let a prince know he needs you; he does not like to think he has incurred a debt to a subject.”
There are lots of characters in the novel, some reliable, some not. Everyone spies on and schemes against everyone else. The gossip is never ending, as are the superstitions, particularly about the dead (and there are a lot of dead). In the end, Henry turns on Cromwell and that is all she wrote.
The novel is spectacular. Hilary Mantel’s writing is simply magnificent and the story, most of which (but not all) follows history and is gripping. That said, the novel is 750 pages and it is a big commitment, which in my opinion, is well worth it. You can reserve this novel by clicking here.